By Elisabeth Hellenbroich
An extraordinary event occurred August 18th, when in the midst of the European summer holidays Russian President Putin attended privately as special guest the wedding of Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl. That same day, late afternoon, he departed from Austria for a private working meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel which took place at the German Guest House Schloss Meseberg, near Berlin. There was neither an official communique nor any Question and Answer period during the short press- conference, which preceded the 3 hours long consultations between the two political leaders. The Merkel -Putin meeting -with a few exceptions such as Klaus Dieter Frankenberger in an FAZ editorial (FAZ 20.08.) who qualified the discussion between Putin and Merkel for example on Syria as “hallucinations”—was soberly commented by the Russian as well as by some German press as a “positive event” which may lead to a new “dynamic” in the recent standstill of Russian- German relations and lead to a more regular dialogue schedule.
The Government press speaker Steffen Seibert during a press conference (August 21) tried to give an assessment stating, that everyone knows that Russia is an “indispensable player for solving certain big conflicts”. He underlined that Germany is interested to maintain good relations with Russia, despite differences on many points. He confirmed that Germany and Russia in principle agree about a UN peace- mission in Eastern Ukraine and qualified the Russian –German Pipeline Project “Nord Stream 2” as an economic project; more clarity was needed about Ukraine’s role as transit country for Russian gas.
Experts from the Russian and German side included Vladislav Belov from the “Center for German Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Europe”-who like Kremlin spokesman Peskov (“there was a lengthy and substantial discussion concerning all relevant subjects that were indicated before”) qualified the meeting as positive and “constructive”, while German Kremlin expert Alexander Rahr in a commentary in “Russland- Kontrovers” (before the meeting took place) spoke about a “unique” chance for the German Chancellor to help solve the Syrian crisis on the basis of “humanitarian help” that allows refugees to return home. It was important according to him to counter the “insane” US sanctions imposed against Russia that are supposed to go into effect as of August 22nd , measures which extraterritorially sanction German banks and enterprises, that do business with Russia concerning the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project.
The Merkel-Putin meeting was essentially a follow up to Merkel’s visit to Putin in Sochi last May. In June President Putin made a state visit to Vienna and in mid- August Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Russian General Chief of Staff Gerassimov made a stopover in Berlin, on their way back from Israel, to hold a private discussion with Merkel and Foreign Minister Maas about Syria.
The most relevant subjects of Meseberg
In a short press conference which preceded the consultations, Chancellor Merkel emphasized that the private meeting offered a possibility to continue the discussion that had begun in Sochi. “Given the fact that world-wide there are so many serious conflicts, there is the necessity to find solutions to solve them”. She spoke about a special “responsibility that Germany has very similar to Russia that is permanent member of the UN Security council. Therefore we work to find solutions.” In respect to the crisis in Ukraine she reiterated that a solution was only possible on the basis of the Minsk agreement – and she underlined that with no solid cease – fire in place, possibly a “UN peacekeeping mission” could contribute to bring about peace. She furthermore mentioned the Nord Stream 2 project and the role which Ukraine plays as transit country. Another important topic was Syria and the need to “prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib”. Germany as part of the small group wants to participate in order to bring about “a political process”, she stated. This should take place in the context of a constitutional reform and possible elections. “We support the work of UN envoy Staffan de Mistura”. She mentioned that this year is in terms of German- Russian relations is devoted to communal and regional cooperation between the two countries and that she hoped that at the upcoming “Petersburg dialogue a deeper exchange between the respective civil societies is made possible.”
President Putin in turn spoke at length about the reciprocal bilateral economic relations. He emphasized that last year the bilateral trade turnover had increased by 22 % to 55 billion Dollars. While in Russia 5000 German companies were doing business with a 50 billion dollars turnover and 270.000 employees, in Germany there were 1500 enterprises with Russian participation that have invested 8 billion Dollar in Germany. An important part of the economic exchange, he said, is the energy sector, given that Germany is one of the biggest recipients of energy from Russia- i.e. 53 billion cubic meters Russian gas to Germany (a 13% increasing from last year). The Russian president favorably spoke about Nord Stream 2 pipeline project (to go into effect 2019) including the possibility of transit through Ukraine if it corresponds to economic demands. He also mentioned perspectives for economic cooperation in the field of High Tech projects and the need to strengthen the cultural partnership between the two countries. In respect to the Mideast he spoke about the need to “strengthen the humanitarian assistance for Syria. I mean in the first place humanitarian aid to the Syrian population and support of those areas to which Syrian refugees could return. There are half a million in Jordan, 350.000 in Turkey. And what we must do is rebuild the communal installations. Including the most elementary water and energy supply.”
While the Syria issue and the possibility that Germany one day might get involved in Syria’s reconstruction was almost hysterically rejected by the German Greenie Party, positive signals were given by the chairman of the “Committee for Eastern Europe of the Institute for German Economic Research”( Ost-Ausschuss, Osteuropaverein der Deutschen Wirtschaft), Wolfgang Büchele, who strongly rejected the extraterritorial US sanctions directed against Russia and those German companies that do business with Russia (for example in the Nord Stream 2 project). He demanded the application of the EU law “Blocking Statute”, given that the US extraterritorial sanctions are a “violation of our sovereign rights.”
Putin as special guest at Austrian Foreign minister’s wedding
Before the Meseberg event President Putin had participated as special guest at the wedding celebrations of Austrian foreign Minister Karin Kneissl. The attendance which was strictly private in character goes back to the invitation which Kneissl had given Putin in the month of June during his state visit in Austria. Noteworthy is a biographical profile that was given by columnist Yvonne Staat (Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung 19.08.) about Austrian Foreign Minister Kneissl who has become foreign minister a year ago. She was qualified as a competent expert on the Mideast. She had lived there as a child for some years (her father served as pilot in the Jordanian Airline). During her university studies she studied law and Arabic and had student jobs in different places such as Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon. Her Autobiography had the title “My Middle East”. She became known to the Austrian TV public as a known publisher of articles and books about the Middle East. According to the FAZ profile, Kneissl has a very critical view concerning the “opportunists” in diplomacy, as well as those who are “superficial.” She is qualified as an “independent, free thinking person” whose motto was taken from the Roman philosopher Seneca: “I rather would like to get things in motion than to please people by flattery.”